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Making Every Shot Count

Call it the Wal-Mart effect. Just as the U.S.-based mega chain's 'always low prices' philosophy is forcing suppliers to maximize efficiencies in the production process, doc-makers are under pressure to supply product to clients for less and less. Commissioning editors, themselves responding to budgetary belt-tightening, are green-lighting projects that will deliver the biggest bang possible on a reduced budget. No small feat, especially when stock and archive footage can be expensive. A few innovative producers, however, are capitalizing on technologies to push the creative potential of their raw material.
February 1, 2004

Call it the Wal-Mart effect. Just as the U.S.-based mega chain’s ‘always low prices’ philosophy is forcing suppliers to maximize efficiencies in the production process, doc-makers are under pressure to supply product to clients for less and less. Commissioning editors, themselves responding to budgetary belt-tightening, are green-lighting projects that will deliver the biggest bang possible on a reduced budget. No small feat, especially when stock and archive footage can be expensive. A few innovative producers, however, are capitalizing on technologies to push the creative potential of their raw material.

UNLOCKING THE FROZEN FRAME

John Wesley Chisholm, the president and senior producer at Halifax, Canada-based Arcadia Entertainment, confronted a storytelling and production dilemma when conceiving the doc Mabel Bell’s Aerial Experiment, a copro between Toronto-based History Television and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He needed to show how famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife dabbled in avionics during the earliest days of flight for the one-hour, CDN$260,000 (US$205,000) program. But, little archive footage of them exists. Then he saw Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, the compelling 2002 doc that relies heavily on photos to present the tumultuous life of Hollywood producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown). Morgen and Burstein, he observed, had cleverly unlocked components of images frozen in time, for instance, making smoke rise afresh off a cigarette photographed smoldering 30 years ago. Chisholm realized he was watching the solution to his problem.

Avid amateur photographers, the Bells used early Kodak Brownie cameras to snap hundreds of pictures, recording everything from houseguests to their flying contraptions. Seeing The Kid alerted Chisholm to the idea of animating these images using widely available graphics and composition software.

To begin, Arcadia secured permission to use approximately 40 photos from a museum dedicated to Bell’s life. The museum, keen to publicize Bell’s achievements, provided the images at no cost. The prodco then digitized the pictures using Adobe’s Photoshop and sliced the images into constituent elements using After Effects, Adobe’s graphics package. For instance, one photo focused on a kite-flying party. ‘We broke it into the various layers of the rolling hills, the kite, and the people flying the kite,’ Chisholm explains. Arcadia then hired Salter Street Digital, a Halifax post-production facility, to do the majority of the work using Discreet’s Combustion composition software. ‘Instead of panning over a still, which we have seen a lot on TV over the last 10 years, you have [the appearance of] the camera moving. It’s like a dolly shot – the background and the depth-of-field and the focus changes,’ Chisholm explains.

‘The beauty of it is you don’t just have to pan around or over an image. You can move through three-dimensional space, so that elements [in the image] will pass by as you zoom in,’ he says.

Enhancing the appearance of movement also boosts the potential screen time of an otherwise static image, Chisholm says. ‘For a [conventional] move over a still, you might have gotten a four to eight second clip… [Using this technique], you can arrange it into a 12 or 15-second sequence that actually does something.’

He cautions that there are limits to this type of treatment: ‘If you take it too far you wind up with Monty Python-style two-dimensional animation. If you use it subtly, it gives a 3D effect.’ Elements from still images can also be planted into moving footage, further expanding the possible uses of the image in a doc, if done with care, Chisholm says.

Since the treatment is executed using popular software, cost is of little issue. ‘If you are in business at all, you can afford them,’ he says. It took days of brainstorming to figure out how to process the first still, he explains, but once they perfected the treatment they could easily process up to 10 stills a day.

Arcadia isn’t the only producer embracing the benefits of new visual effects software. When Vienna-based Georg Misch, the director of doc prodco Mischief Films, wanted a 1930s shot of a building façade for a current doc project, Calling Hedy Lamarr, but couldn’t find one, he turned to Apple’s Final Cut Pro and After Effects. He fabricated the brief clip he needed on his Mac using a still photo of the Hofburg that was snapped in the appropriate era, then animated it much the same way Chisholm made Bell’s kite fly. To make the sequence seem more authentic, he digitally introduced the mild jiggling reminiscent of early black-and-white cinematography.

CUTTING OUT ALL THE CUTTING

Hjálmtyr Heiodal, the manager of Reykjavik-based Seylan Film Production, harnesses the tremendous crunching power of today’s computer systems to minimize production turnaround times associated with handling acquired footage. In Heiodal’s experience, it can be a producer’s lifesaver, especially when key archive footage comes to light late in the day.

He learned this the hard way during the production of The Black Island, a one-hour, US$120,000 one-off coproduced with Stockholm-based See-Film. Mere days before picture lock last September, a fisherman called to say he had shot footage of the subject of the Black Island, an undersea volcanic eruption that gave birth to Surtsey, an islet that rose in the North Atlantic in the early 1960s. The fisherman offered the material for free after reading about the production in a Swedish newspaper.

It was unique and exclusive footage that was key to their story, so Heiodal rushed the 16-mm film through a telecine and quickly re-cut the digibeta doc to incorporate seven minutes of the fisherman’s material. The producers met the delivery date just the same.

Heiodal explains he was able to incorporate the Surtsey action so quickly, because he follows a methodology that streamlines the time dedicated to archive productions. He regularly skips the edit decision list and dives right into the online cut using standard non-linear editing software such as Final Cut or Avid Express.

The time saved can be considerable, especially when managing clips from a variety of sources (or late in the workflow). Clips can be stored and sorted with such ease that hunt-and-pick style listing of edit decisions are a thing of the past, Heiodal notes. ‘Now that computers, software and disk space are so cheap, there is no real difference between offline and online editing,’ he says.

Heiodal stores the digitized archive footage, plus original footage – all uncompressed – for a production on one 100-gigabyte disk (handling uncompressed footage instead of compressed shaves time).

Tom Roberts, the managing director of London-based October Films, however, cautions that doc-makers need to balance the urge to experiment with features-laden editing systems with strict devotion to a production’s schedule. ‘If you fool around in the first 10 days, lose time and get under the gun, you’re never going to have the option to go back and take a look at the material with the knowledge of what the film is really doing,’ Roberts says.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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